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The SKA epitomises a Big Science project, bringing together thousands of people in hundreds of institutions around the world in order to create something extraordinary.
Dr. Conor Fitzpatrick is a particle physicist based at the University of Manchester and CERN, who is helping to tackle the enormous data challenge posed by both the SKA and another mega-science infrastructure, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
Conor is also a Future Leaders Fellow, a UKRI-funded scheme supporting the best researchers and innovators in the UK to develop their careers. As one of the newest members of Team SKA, we caught up with him to hear more about his research, how he intends to use the fellowship, and why he’s so excited about joining Team SKA.
Let’s begin by talking about your background. Were you interested in science from a young age?
Growing up near the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, I was always fascinated by the enormous gantry cranes on the skyline. Since then I’ve been fascinated by our ability to make machines of such scales and complexity.
What was the path that led you to choosing particle physics as a career?
At school I was interested in everything from electronic engineering to computer science and had a hard time making up my mind, but at university I realised that experimental physics, particularly particle physics, would let me do a little bit of each of these subjects. It meant I never had to choose!
“The different requirements of the LHC and SKA are a great way to discover and share techniques commonplace in one field but unheard of in the other.”
So how did you come to specialise in data processing – what kind of projects have you worked on previously?
My work so far has been on the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb)
at CERN. The detectors on the LHC take up to 40 million ‘photographs’ a second, every time two bunches of protons collide. As with a digital camera, the experiments have limited storage, and many of these photographs are uninteresting, so we delete these to keep only the proton collisions we are interested in studying in greater detail. This process is called the ‘trigger’ in particle physics, and it is performed automatically using thousands of powerful computers.
My work at LHCb has been in leading the team that writes the trigger software for LHCb that runs on these computers. We have to balance the requirements of physicists who want to analyse as much of the data as possible with the resources we have available, meaning that we are always seeking new ideas to improve the performance of the trigger to fit more science in the same space.
As well as working within Team SKA, Conor is contributing his expertise to the team at CERN (© 2019 CERN. All rights reserved.)
We think of both the SKA and LHC as “big data” projects but they have very different aims – do they have similar requirements in terms of data processing?
Absolutely: the amount of data SKA will produce is phenomenal, on the same level as all the data produced at the future ‘High Luminosity’ LHC
in a given year.
The same underlying technologies will be used by both the LHC and the SKA to process this data, however the end-user, astronomers and cosmologists in the case of SKA, and particle physicists in the case of the LHC, will have very different needs for the data that is produced. This is why I’m so interested in working with SKA: the different requirements are a great way to discover and share techniques that are commonplace in one field but unheard of in the other.
“Joining Team SKA is an opportunity to learn from an incredibly talented group of researchers at a time when they are pushing their field forward.”
And now you’ve received a UK Future Leaders Fellowship to support that work – congratulations! What can you tell us about the new data processing methods you’re working on for both projects, and how they’ll benefit the SKA?
The ‘trigger’ in particle physics terms automatically flags data that is interesting for further analysis. This is very similar to flagging radio data when an unexpected ‘transient’ signal is observed. These transients are increasingly important in radioastronomy, and I look forward to bringing my knowledge of triggering to challenges of this kind.
LHCb is also pioneering something new in particle physics: a combination of real-time alignment and calibration of its detector allows us to discard a lot of the data we would otherwise have to keep in order to perform these calibrations later. This saves us a lot of space, and reduces the amount of processing needed at later stages when these calibrations would have normally been performed. It will be interesting to see if similar techniques can be used by SKA.
The sight of gantry cranes at Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Northern Ireland, inspired Conor to pursue a STEM career (© 2019 Conor Fitzpatrick. All rights reserved.)
One challenge associated with this procedure is that it is irreversible, so the calibration must be right first time. This means that testing the data for errors or unexpected results is increasingly important. Due to the complexity of both LHCb and SKA, this testing cannot easily be performed manually, so I intend to use machine learning techniques to automate the process.
You’re becoming part of Team SKA at a very exciting time in the project, as we head into the construction phase and transition to the SKA Observatory. What most excites you about being part of the SKA?
I’m extremely excited to be joining Team SKA at this time, because it will be an opportunity to learn from an incredibly talented group of researchers at a time when they are pushing their field forward.
The excitement and shared ingenuity on display at the start of the LHC back in the 2000s was an amazing experience to be a part of, and I am certain the same will be true at SKA. I look forward to learning from what is to me an entirely new field, and I hope I can bring some of my experience to the exciting challenges that lie ahead!
These huge science projects will need generations of new scientists and engineers in the future. What advice would you give to young people interested in getting into this field?
For youngsters interested in STEM the best advice I can give is to be curious. Never be shy about asking questions or looking for more detail, and don’t be surprised if your teachers don’t have all the answers. They’ll still be learning too, just like I am now.
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